The Marvelous, Monstrous Met

As I wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stumbled upon masterpieces like Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.

I mastered the Met. And that’s no easy task. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the largest art museum in the United States.

Had I realized what a massive undertaking it was, I would have tracked my time – like counting the licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But when I started exploring the museum with my new membership in January, I hadn’t a clue. I had visited the Met a couple of times over the years but never fully comprehended its vastness nor the richness of the treasures within. And its setting in Central Park, away from other blocks and buildings that could provide perspective, makes it hard to gauge its scale – 2 million square feet – from the outside.

Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja is one of those paintings I instantly recognized but knew nothing about.

My best guess is that I spent roughly (very roughly) 50 hours exploring the museum’s galleries. That’s based on the assumption that I did, in fact, visit the place once a week – with a few exceptions – and spent an average of about 2.5 hours per visit. In reality, though, I probably spent even more time there, as some weeks I think I went twice, and occasionally I’d last 3-4 hours before my feet began to ache.

The one thing I am certain of, however, is that I still haven’t visited every gallery in the museum. Of the 440 galleries, 57 of them were closed during my visits. Of course, I visited some of them twice, as certain galleries feature temporary exhibits that rotate. And I returned to some simply to marvel at the treasures, and others because of fantastic events like Jazz & Colors at the Met.

I also can’t claim to have seen every object in every gallery. I have come close, though, as I meticulously worked my way through each, giving everything a look. But occasionally I’d come across am empty space marked with a note explaining that the item had been temporarily removed for one reason or another – cleaning, restoration, on loan elsewhere, etc.

The Met features art from all around the world, including Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa.

And the Met has a lot of stuff. A whole lot of stuff. It’s overwhelming. For example, the ancient artifacts are amazing, but shelves lined with chards of pottery can become mind-numbing while offering little insight beyond the realization that we pocketed everything from these archeological sites.

On a side note, that’s one of the disturbing aspects of the ancient treasures at the Met. What gave us the right to collect all this stuff, other than the fact that we had the foresight and finances? If you live in Cyprus, you’ll probably need to come to New York to learn about your past – and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The other art ad nauseam experience at the Met can be found in the European galleries, where you will be subjected to an infinite number of horribly similar paintings of religious subjects. If I see another portrait of the Madonna and Child I’ll crucify someone.

But there are treasures. Many, many wonderful treasures. Art and artifacts in every medium imaginable from every era and every corner of the world. You’ve got treasures from the ancient world – Egypt, Greece, Rome, and then some – including sculptures, sphinxes, sarcophaguses, and even a real, transplanted temple from 15 BC. There are tons of classic paintings along with a good collection of modern and contemporary art. And some unexpected finds, like an entire wing devoted to Africa and Oceania.

Among the many masterpieces you’ll find at the Met is Pablo Picasso’s At the Lapin Agile.

It may sound cliché, but there really is something for everyone at the Met – even folks who aren’t too crazy about art. You’ve got suits of armor and all sorts of guns and swords. Giant sculptures and carvings. Costumes, textiles, musical instruments, and even furniture.

Since few will have the time to tour the entire museum as I have, visitors need to decide what they want to see – what era, region, or art form they are most interested in. Or they can pick a wing and explore every nook and cranny of that.

I find that two hours is a good amount of time to spend in any museum. Visitors might want to linger a little longer in the Met, given its sheer volume. You can always take a break, as there are many benches and a couple of cafes. And while most of the food and drink options are as overpriced and underwhelming as one would imagine, the roof garden is worth a visit just for the views of Central Park.

Be sure to check out the Met’s Web site before you visit the actual museum because it is an exceptional resource. It offers an interactive map with overviews of each individual gallery, visitor tips and policies, and even some suggested itineraries. A little research and planning will go a long way, ensuring you get the most out of your visit to the marvelous, monstrous Met.

One of my favorite pieces at the Met is Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream.

Jazz & Colors at the Met

Marika Hughes and Friends played in front of Washington Crossing the Delaware during Jazz & Colors at the Met.

Marika Hughes and Friends performed in front of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware during Jazz & Colors at the Met.

Jazz & Colors is the kind of thing that makes New York City worth it. And it’s also the kind of thing that makes absolutely no sense to someone who doesn’t love New York City.

Jazz & Colors is an event that places multiple jazz bands in various locations and has them play the same set. Sounds simple, right? Or perhaps confusing? The best way to explain it is in the execution.

Saxophonist JD Allen and his band performed among the Met's modern art collection.

Saxophonist JD Allen and his band performed among the Met’s Modern Art collection.

It originated in Central Park, to showcase the fall foliage (the “colors”). A dozen of the park’s most scenic spots were selected. An assortment of jazz bands were recruited, each being assigned a particular spot. And they were handed a set list, the same set list, and a timetable. In effect, they were all performing the same concert but in different locations. So people could experience the same songs performed by different bands in different settings, surrounded by the mix of colors of the fall foliage.

And that’s really what jazz is all about, isn’t it? Individuality and collaboration, novelty and familiarity. A jazz musician works in concert with others to offer his own interpretation. And no jazz band, let alone jazz musician, plays the same song the same way. As such, the audience becomes part of the experience – a one-off that they share with the musicians performing. And the natural beauty of autumn in Central Park makes it all the more special.

Despite the success of the first two Jazz & Colors events in Central Park, the third one never materialized. I’m not sure who is to blame – the organizers (it was never well promoted) or the Parks Department (or Central Park Conservancy), which seems to have an affinity for more mainstream (as in corporate-sponsored) events. But it was a shame. Criminal.

Jazz & Colors: The Full Spectrum Edition
Then this happened. Jazz & Colors failed to materialize this past fall, but suddenly it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring. And instead of fall foliage as the backdrop, the jazz would have world-class artworks – including a few masterpieces – as the “colors.” Brilliant.

The Jovan Alexandre Trio dazzled visitors in the Met's Arms & Armor collection.

The Jovan Alexandre Trio dazzled visitors in the Met’s Arms & Armor collection.

And it was. There was still the logistical challenge of getting from one spot to the next, from one band to the other, without missing that much of a song. The gallery locations were a lot closer than the locations in the park were. However, you could hear the music between the spots in the park, while the galleries made that more difficult. It’s also a little easier to sit down on the grass than the floor of a museum as stuffy as the Met (though many did plop themselves down without a care).

As always, some of the acts were better than others. But many of them – like JD Allen, Kimberly Thompson, and the Jovan Alexandre Trio – were quite good. In fact, my friend said she’d be interested in seeing a few of them play in a club, which I imagine is part of the attraction for the bands.

Drummer Kimberly Thompson and her band performed in front of Indonesian ancestral carvings in the Met's Melanesia gallery.

Drummer Kimberly Thompson and her band performed in front of Indonesian ancestral carvings in the Met’s Melanesia gallery.

Hopefully there was enough of an attraction for the Met as well. I have been undertaking a disturbingly well-planned tour of the museum since becoming a member at the end of last year. It’s taken me months, but I’ve seen nearly every gallery (at around 2 million square feet, it’s the largest museum in the United States). So I had no problem zipping past masterpieces to catch the next number. But I imagine others, newcomers to the museum, were a little more attentive to the artwork and hopefully opted to at least come back for another visit or even become a member.

If so, then we might see more of Jazz & Colors at the Met. Perhaps it will even become a regular occurrence. Though I’d still love to see it back in Central Park for the fall. And if that fails, what about the High Line? Prospect Park? Or even Randall’s Island?

Jazz & Colors is such a beautiful concept that I can’t imagine it going away. But that’s the nature of jazz, isn’t it? Sure, there are recordings – delightful ones, at that. But you really have to be there. It’s in the moment. And Jazz & Colors is one of those quintessential New York moments.

JD Allen and his band best captured the spirit of Jazz & Colors with their performance in the Met's Modern Art mezzanine.

JD Allen and his band best captured the spirit of Jazz & Colors with their performance in the Met’s Modern Art mezzanine.

Additional images of Jazz & Colors at the Met can be seen here.

Jazz and Colors 2013

The Kahlil Kwame Bell Trio play by the Pool in Central Park as part of Jazz & Colors 2013 (left-right: Chris Hemingway on alto sax, Kahlil Kwame Bell on drums, and Lonnie Plaxico on bass).

Saturday was indeed the perfect day in Central Park. I went to the 2013 Jazz & Colors Festival, which featured 30 bands in 30 locations around the park playing one incredible set list.

The Outer Bridge Ensemble took the high ground at the Mount St. Vincent Landscape in Central Park (left-right: Javier Diaz on the congas, David Freeman on drums, Mike Noordzy on bass, Mark DeJong on saxophone, and Steve Hudson on keyboards).

I started by the East Meadow with the Gregg August Quartet, who were slow to start and somewhat uninspired. And then I moved on to the Outer Bridge Ensemble, up by the Mount St. Vincent Landscape, and this quartet completely blew me away. There were a lot of people playing instruments in the park that day, but these cats were playing music. And like any true jazz artists, they took the standards and made them their own.

The following is a clip from the Outer Bridge Ensemble’s launch of Maiden Voyage, in which they got us all on board before setting sail:

As tempted as I was to park myself in front of these guys for the rest of the day, I wanted to move on and see a few other bands. After all, that’s kind of the whole point have having 30 bands in 30 locations playing the same set.

Chris Hemingway working the alto sax by the Pool for Kahlil Kwame Bell.

So I slipped over to the Pool, one of the most picturesque places in the park, to catch Kahlil Kwame Bell. It was indeed a lovely, but the music wasn’t moving me. And the crowd was more transient.

Looking for inspiration, I boogied up the hill to check out Lakecia Benjamin & Soul Squad atop the Great Hill. If it was funk night, that might have worked for me. But covering the standards, they reminded me more of Murph & the Magic Tones from The Blues Brothers movie.

So I decided to follow my heart and head back to the Outer Bridge Ensemble at the Mount St. Vincent Landscape. I hiked down through the Ravine, which is among the most densely wooded and rustic trails in the park, with the fall foliage in full swing, and arrived just in time to catch them bringing Take the A Train into the station:

I’m wondering if there’s something about that spot, the Mount St. Vincent Landscape. Last year, at Jazz & Colors 2012, the Kevin Hays Trio held that very same ground, and they were by far the best band that day as well.

Lakecia Benjamin & Soul Squad play atop the Great Hill during Jazz & Colors 2013 (left-right: Joe Blaxx on drums, Lakecia Benjamin on sax, and Jonathon Powell on trumpet).

What I don’t understand is how people can walk through the park and not stop to listen to music. Free music. Even if it’s just for a song. It’s not like anyone is rushing to an appointment in the park, on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Though I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. Like those young ladies who decided to sit down and, instead of actually listening to jazz, talk incessantly about how they don’t understand it.

As with last year’s event, the attendance seemed sparse, as if most people just stumbled upon it. If I hadn’t been on an email list for local music, even I – despite being mad with joy over last year’s event – wouldn’t have heard about this year’s Jazz & Colors. And that’s a shame.

Looking back, this is why I love New York. On a brisk but bright autumn afternoon, I can wander into the park and be entertained by a number of talented musicians with a backdrop that would make Renoir horny. I wish they did this sort of thing more often, but then maybe it wouldn’t be as special if they did.

Many thanks to the organizers of Jazz & Colors. And to the folks at the Central Park Conservancy. And, above all, to the musicians – especially the Outer Bridge Ensemble: Steve Hudson on keyboards, Mark DeJong on saxophone, Mike Noordzy on bass, David Freeman on drums, and Javier Diaz on the congas.

The Outer Bridge Ensemble at the Mount St. Vincent Landscape were the highlight of Jazz & Colors 2013 (left-right: Javier Diaz on the congas, David Freeman on drums, Mark DeJong on saxophone, Mike Noordzy on bass, and Steve Hudson on keyboards).

Jazz in Central Park

Jazz&Colors2012ALast weekend I wandered around Central Park for a bit. The fall colors were in full glory. I thought it was one of those perfect park moments. I was wrong. Well, sort of.

This Saturday, Nov. 9th, Central Park will serve as the showcase for Jazz & Colors – 30 bands in 30 locations simultaneously playing one exceptional set list. I attended this last year (see the clip below) and it was as if I took the subway to amazing but missed my stop (i.e., it was beyond amazing). It’s one of those events that reminds you why you want to live in New York City.

Jazz&Colors2012BThe concert kicks off at noon (fortunately jazz musicians tend to keep the same hours that I do), with the first set running from 12:00-1:30. There will then be a 30-minute intermission, which should allow you sufficient time to move to a different location, with the second set running from 2:00-3:00. That will be followed by another intermission and then an encore from 3:30-4:00, which should give each band a chance to do its own thing.

The First Set: 12:00-1:30
Caravan – Juan Tizol
Bemsha Swing – Thelonious Monk
Cherokee – Ray Noble
A Night in Tunisia – Dizzy Gillespie
So What – Miles Davis
Footprints – Wayne Shorter
Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock
Take 5 – Paul Desmond
Tenor Madness – Sonny Rollins

The Second Set: 2:00-3:00
Take The A Train – Billy Strayhorn
Harlem Nocturne – Earl Hagen
Stompin’ at the Savoy – Chick Webb
Grand Central – John Coltrane
Central Park North – Thad Jones and Mel Lewis
New York City – Gil Scott Heron/Brian Jackson
A Foggy Day in London Town – George Gershwin
Las Vegas Tango – Gil Evans
We Live in Brooklyn Baby – Harry Whitaker

Visit the Jazz & Colors Central Park site to get all the details. You can simply wander into the park on Saturday and listen for the music. But I recommend downloading this map and doing a little research – matching the prettiest settings with the most interesting bands. Like the park itself, you’ll find a tremendous variety of artists performing – and no two groups will tackle the set list in the same way.